ST. JOSEPH — Health officials are preparing for what life may look like after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order expires in two weeks, Berrien County Health Officer Nicki Britten told county commissioners Thursday.
“We really don’t know what May looks like and what might be happening between the governor and the Legislature, so we’re all staying tuned as to how some of that might play out, thinking about what we need locally,” Britten said during the board’s virtual meeting on Zoom, which was broadcast live on YouTube.
And what Berrien County needs locally may look different from what other parts of the state need, Britten said.
“Health officers across the state, myself included, would be in support of a regionalized approach, depending what that looks like and how we define regions,” Britten said. “... I think there’s support for that. I think that’s a reasonable direction to go.”
The state has been under lockdown since March 24, with Whitmer issuing a number of executive orders that temporarily closed non-essential businesses, banned all gatherings and ended the K-12 school year in an effort to slow down the spread of the COVID-19 virus so hospitals aren’t overwhelmed.
Britten said officials from contiguous counties need to start making plans that protect their local interests.
“The local health departments have been talking a lot about this. What is this next phase, knowing that this type of shutdown, while it seems like it’s being effective in slowing disease transmission, we need to figure out how to let our foot off the brake a little bit,” she said.
County commissioners are considering adding their support to the growing number of people calling on Whitmer to allow some currently banned businesses to reopen if they can do so safely without spreading the COVID-19 virus.
Commissioner Teri Freehling said that if a resolution is drawn up, it needs to encourage the governor to follow the federal standards for the definition of essential workers “so that we can put more of our businesses back to work.”
Commissioner Michael Majerek said that Niles is competing with South Bend, Ind., where the federal standards are being followed.
“Everybody’s just going over the state line and doing their shopping and work and then coming back to Niles, and it’s hurting our small businesses,” he said.
Landscapers are among several occupations listed as essential in the federal guidelines, but not in Whitmer’s order. Another difference between states is in how non-essential businesses are being treated. In Indiana, businesses like floral shops are allowed to take orders over the phone and online, with the product picked up at the curb. In Michigan, not only is that activity banned, but big box stores are being forced to rope off sections of their stores that sell items deemed by the state to be nonessential, such as paint, carpeting and plants.
County Board Chairman Mac Elliott said the problem with the state’s one-size-fits-all approach is that the one size appears to be what the southeast side of the state needs and doesn’t consider the rest of the state.
More than 80 percent of the state’s COVID-19 cases are in the Detroit area.
As county commissioners consider drafting a resolution, they are looking at one passed Tuesday by the Oronoko Township Board that asks Whitmer to reconsider her stay-at-home order, which expires April 30.
The resolution calls for workers to be allowed to return to their jobs in occupations where social distancing can be done to mitigate the spread of the virus.
It also calls for state legislators to “convene in regular session to represent the voice of the people and stand against the unilateral actions of Governor Whitmer.”
The resolution can be found on the Oronoko Charter Township Facebook page.
More tests needed
During Thursday’s meeting Britten said that extensive testing plus contact tracing are essential to reopen society. But, she said COVID-19 tests are still scarce.
She said that over the past six weeks, the health department has talked to 1,600 to 1,700 people who may have come in contact with someone who tested positive with COVID-19, with those people asked to quarantine for two weeks so the virus isn’t spread.
She said it is also still difficult to find enough personal protective equipment to protect area health workers, but it is a little easier than two weeks ago.
Britten said a second testing site for COVID-19 was set up by the state last week at InterCare in Benton Harbor.
“There was a push for having additional testing in urban centers outside of Southeast Michigan,” she said. “There has been an agency at the state level that has been coordinating with federally qualified health centers. We’re grateful that InterCare is doing that. They seem to have a great operation and (it) is happening at a time when the governor and MDHHS are requesting that we work to test more mild and moderate people with symptoms, not just those who are seriously ill.”
The first site was set up by Spectrum Health Lakeland last month at the Center for Outpatient Services on 3900 Hollywood Road in St. Joseph Township.
People need to call ahead before going to either site to be tested. The number for InterCare is 855-869-6900. The number to be screened for the virus by Spectrum Health Lakeland is 833-559-0659.
Recovery could take years
Britten said the health department has already started making plans to help people recover from this pandemic, which could take years.
“We know the economic impact that so many family are living through now, being laid off, having delays in receiving unemployment payments,” she said. “Even if those come as a backlog, they’re still dealing with the debt that’s incurring without having that. Then also some of the other things that come with continuing to work during this time and what are some of the costs associated with that. Needless to say, every family in Berrien County, really every family in our country, has been impacted by this in some way.”
She said that people’s long-term health is impacted when their income, jobs and housing are in question.
“As a health department that cares deeply about those upstream causes of health, and the inequities in all of those systems that persist in our county, we’re working to make sure that some of the collateral damage to our response to the pandemic – how we can minimize that for the health needs of our residents in the years going forward,” she said. “We know there will be an impact for a long time to come. We’re doing that planning now, at the same time we’re trying to do everything we can to slow the transmission of COVID-19 here in Berrien County.”